Plain and Fancy

IN LANCASTER COUNTY, USA

Amidst the frenzy of development and modernization in just about every other corner of the world, there are pockets of people who cling to the past as tenaciously as the rest of us push forward.

In Lancaster County, in the American state of Pennsylvania where I spent my childhood, bright yellow road signs with a horse and buggy symbol warn drivers to slow down as they’re sharing the roads with the Amish. When I returned for a visit recently, nothing, of course, had changed.

This Christian sect has remained virtually the same since its beginnings during the Protestant Reformation in late 17th century Europe. The Amish, as well as the Mennonites (a sect the Amish broke away from to pursue a stricter code of behavior), craved a simpler, purer form of Christianity in contrast to the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church in Europe at the time.

To escape religious persecution, they fled to America from southern Germany, eastern France and Switzerland starting in the late 1600s. Most headed to the state of Pennsylvania where the leader at the time was William Penn, a tolerant, pragmatic man who welcomed all faiths to settle in the state and work the land as farmers. More than three centuries later, there are about 60,000 Amish still in Pennsylvania and some 250,000 throughout the United States. Surprisingly the population continues to grow.

Devout and Determined

Living today as they did when they first arrived in Pennsylvania, the Amish shun technology and the ways of the modern world, and continue to work as farmers, growing tobacco and raising dairy cows. They are single-mindedly committed to maintaining their core values: to live a simple, un-materialistic life in service to God. The Amish don’t use electricity, cars or any form of mechanized farm equipment. They work their fields with ancient-looking steel plows pulled by work horses and they use windmills to pump water from the ground. Women cover their heads with bonnets and married men, in lieu of a wedding ring, grow beards. Not surprisingly, Amish and Mennonites are known colloquially as “plain” and everyone else is called “fancy.”

Shoofly Pie in Paradise

The best way to get a peak at the Amish way of life is by simply driving along the roads of Lancaster County. While passing through towns that go back centuries (and chuckling at names like Intercourse, Paradise and Bird-in-Hand), see the Amish doing errands in their horse-drawn carriages, plowing their fields without tractors and scooting along on pedal-less bicycles—the women in long dark dresses and the men in black pants held up with suspenders instead of flashier belts. The Amish believe desire is the root of all evil. To them, the more you have the more you want.

Well, that’s definitely true when the “English” (what Amish call everyone who isn’t Amish or Mennonite) dine at one of Lancaster County’s all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet restaurants. Moderation isn’t on the menu.

At places with names like Plain & Fancy Restaurant (3121 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bird-in-Hand) and Miller’s restaurant (2811 Lincoln Highway East, Ronks), dive into generous all-you-can-eat buffet spreads for about $20 USD per person. Main courses typically include chicken pot pie (a thick casserole of noodles and gravy) and slabs of ham steak, along with side dishes like red beet eggs (hard boiled eggs soaked in red beet juice, vinegar and sugar), bread filling, dried sweet corn, and sweet and sour pepper cabbage. Homemade desserts are heavy but hard to resist sampling, especially the famous shoofly pie, a dense combo of molasses, brown sugar and spices.

You’ll also want to stop in at a farmer’s market or two, such as Bird-in-Hand Farmers Market (2710 Old Philadelphia Pike) or Zook’s Roadside Stand (3916 Old Philadelphia Pike, Gordonville) to browse for crafts made by local Amish and Mennonites, including beautiful handmade quilts and pillow covers, dolls, and sturdy wood furniture. Most markets sell food as well, from the region’s beloved pretzels to homemade fudge, relishes and apple butter. While Amish are traditionally farmers, to make ends meet you’ll also find them working in the markets and offering buggy rides to tourists.

It seems like a hard life, but no one is forced to stay. Amish are free to leave the flock, but they’ll be shunned for life if they do.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies daily between Singapore and New York. Lancaster County is a three-hour train or car ride from New York City, and one hour from Philadelphia.

TRAVELLER’S TIPS

■ Rent a car and drive along Lancaster County’s Route 340/Old Philadelphia Pike and Route 30/Lincoln Highway, and turn off into the many small side roads to see Amish farms close up
■ Take a buggy ride along the picturesque country roads in a real Amish carriage (Abe’s Buggy Rides, 2596 Old Philadelphia Pike)
■ Tour an old farm that at one time was lived in by Amish, at The Amish Farm and House (2395 Lincoln Highway East; www.amishfarmandhouse.com)
■ September and October are the most pleasant months to visit, with mild temperatures, fewer crowds and beautiful fall foliage
■ Hotels in the area include the basic but centrally located Travelers Rest Motel and the Amish Country Motel (both @ 800/538-2535) or one of many bed and breakfasts such as the Candlelight Inn (www.candleinn.com). Stays at working farms include the Neffdale Farm of Paradise (www.neffdalefarm.com).
■ Www.padutchcountry.com is the official source for Lancaster Country tourism information
■ The Amish do not like to be photographed, so respect their wishes. — April 2013